In relationships, being vulnerable is the act of showing someone exactly who you are and how you feel without disguise, bravado, or ego defenses, exposing yourself to the possibility of hurt or rejection.

“Being vulnerable means we make a conscious decision not to hide ourselves,” explains licensed couples therapist Alicia Muñoz, LPC. “This is risky because we can’t control how others will respond to us. It means others see who we truly are, and if they aren’t able to take us in, or appreciate our complexity, and they judge or reject us, it hurts deeply.”

To help understand what vulnerability looks like in practice, Muñoz offers the example of how babies handle emotions:

“Being vulnerable with someone means risking being your true self. For babies, this is easy. They’re effortlessly themselves. They feel sad and they cry. They feel happy and they smile. They experience pain and they flinch, gasp, or whimper. They’re afraid and they seek soothing and comfort. Babies haven’t yet learned to hide themselves or what they feel. As our brains get more sophisticated, and we experience losses and disappointments, and develop a sense of ourselves as separate from others, we learn to present ourselves to the world the way we want to be perceived. We learn to hide ourselves. When we feel sad, we laugh. When we feel scared, we act indifferent. When we feel jealous, we tell people we’re happy for them.”

As Muñoz points out, people begin to struggle with vulnerability because they fear getting hurt—typically in the form of other people’s rejection, judgment, or betrayal. We may begin to put on a brave face, act indifferent, suppress emotions, or step into a role meant to protect ourselves from these risks.

“The irony is, when we do this, we end up robbing ourselves of the intimacy, connection, community, and love of the people who have the bandwidth and capacity to take us in as we are,” she says.

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